Women’s Representativeness in Government and Politics, Korea

  • Soojin KimEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3813-1



Women’s representativeness in government and politics refers to the presence of more women in the civil service and political arena, as well as increasing women’s access to leadership positions in the public sector.


Over the past few decades, South Korea has rapidly developed from being an agricultural country toward industrialization and economic modernization alongside Asian countries. In the process, it became the 11th largest trading country in the world by the mid-1990s (Hermanns 2006). Despite dramatic progress in economic development, the representation of more women in the civil service and political arena has not increased correspondingly. In other words, compared to men, women have been relatively disadvantaged in opportunities to enter areas of governance, including government agencies, legislative bodies, and political parties, as well as in roles of power and authority. This ongoing gender imbalance in Korean society was also reflected in the Global Gender Gap Report 2017. According to this annual report that places greater value on gender equality, measured by the degree of women’s economic participation and access to opportunities, their educational attainment, health and survival, as well as political empowerment, South Korea ranked 118th among 144 countries, faring worse than other Asian countries (i.e., China ranked 100th; India ranked 108th; Japan ranked 114th) (World Economic Forum 2017).

A large body of research has responded to this issue, arguing that the different gender roles and expectations embedded in Korean society, especially the subsequent inferior political status of women, may have originated from the country’s Confucian legacy (e.g., Hermanns 2006; Kim 2013). Traditionally, Korean men have been relatively well-educated and naturally given better opportunities of access to economic and political activities. On the other hand, Korean women have tended to be raised within the household (or minimally educated) to fulfill the role of being good wives and mothers. In short, women’s roles were simply private and domestic (e.g., child-rearing and practices of housework) (Chin 2004; Hoffman 1995; Kim 2013). Such a passive and apolitical image of Korean women could be expressed in the following Korean proverb: “When the hen clucks, the family will be ruined” (Chin 2004, 299). Arguably, this unique conservative ideology (also known as Korea’s patriarchy) has long been related to culturally defined categories of male and female (role differentiation) in social systems, which in turn made the empowerment and political participation of Korean women even more difficult (Hoffman 1995; Kim 2013).

However, it should be noted that, since its transition from the military regime to democracy in the late 1980s, Korean society has experienced marked changes in political ideology, societal and cultural expectations in the governance system, as well as policy initiatives and decisions toward greater gender equality (Nam 2000). It is thus undeniable that Korean women’s current social status and rights, accompanied with their political participation and leadership roles, have vastly improved from the past. Given this situation, it is worth exploring which factors have largely influenced women’s representativeness in the public sector and how these historical trends and features have been shaped by factors within the context of Korean government entities and politics.

The Road Toward Women’s Rise to Power in the Public Sector

It has been argued that enhancing women’s participation and representativeness in the public sector is largely attributable to changes in socioeconomic conditions, institutional factors, and political culture (Chin 2004; Kim 2013; True et al. 2014). Focusing on cases of Asia-Pacific countries (i.e., China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea), a recent report by True et al. (2014) addresses the following factors as key common enablers as well as obstacles pertaining to women’s political engagement: (1) rapid economic and human development, (2) economic opportunities, (3) education, (4) electoral systems (e.g., gender quotas and temporary special measures), and (5) culture and civil society. It should be noted that in practice, such factors are intertwined with one another rather than perform independently. In light of this viewpoint, there is a need to have deeper discussion of the impact of a few critical factors on Korean women’s social and political empowerment within the historical context.

First, spurred by the growing number of economically active female human resources and women’s increased education levels, a significant proportion of Korean women began not only to enter the public service workforce but also to become equipped to politically represent themselves. Obviously, while Korea’s rapid path to economic growth and urbanization owed a great deal to women’s labor (Lee and Chin 2007), it also has greatly expanded employment opportunities for women in the labor market, regardless of sector. This socioeconomic change has positively influenced women’s educational attainments. For example, according to Lee and Chin (2007, 1212), average years of schooling were approximately 6 years for males and 4 years for females in the mid-1960s, whereas those increased to approximately 11 years for males and 9 years for females in the 1990s. In addition, with regard to the rates of women attending high school and institutions of higher education, the figures increased from 24% to 85% and 4% to 24%, respectively, over the period 1970–1990. This evidence shows that through education, Korean women and men have been trained more equally, which in turn made women more qualified than before to work outside, including the public sector (Kim 2013).

Meanwhile, the apolitical image of Korean women has gradually faded. Specifically, the issue of gender imbalance at all levels of society, resulting in part from women’s awareness of (opposition to) sex discrimination in the workplace (e.g., gender-based recruitment, pay gaps, and promotions), has received much attention, which began in the 1980s (Nam 2000). Citizen demands for equal opportunities and empowerment, regardless of gender, have been growing, and in turn, many women have begun to actively engage with the government and its politics, rather than by simply voting, to better voice their views and preferences pertaining to public policies. Although almost every female candidate was defeated in local elections in the 1980s and 1990s, due to the predominant social prejudice that “women would not be able to do politics” (Kim 2013, 1851), such a belief has been challenged in practice since the 2000s. Notably, in 2004, all the three main political parties began to designate a female speaker, with the main opposition party (the Grand National Party) electing a female party president, Park Geun-hye (Hermanns 2006). In 2006, the first female Prime Minister, Han Myeong-sook, was appointed under the Roh Moo-hyun administration; and on December 19, 2012, South Korea saw a historical moment in having its first female leader, Park Geun-Hye, elected the as 18th President. Given long-standing male-dominated politics, Park’s success of winning the presidential election was a symbolic event in Korean history, as well as in other Asian countries. This event did trigger visible changes of the female power in Cabinet positions. Under the Park administration, two female ministers were appointed, and under the subsequent administration, led by Moon Jae-in, the 19th and current President of South Korea since 2017, more than eight female ministers have been appointed, which is deemed the highest figure in Korean history.

Second, it is notable that electoral systems, accompanied by their gender quotas, have affected the extent to which Korean women become political representatives. True and his colleagues (2014, 8–9) argued that it is likely in proportional electoral systems for women’s political representation to be higher, compared to majority or plurality systems, because proportional systems directly allow for quotas of the number of female candidates on the party list. They further stated that, “[i]ncreasing the number of women representatives in legislatures and parliaments at all levels will lead, in turn, to the appointment of women to leadership or executive positions such as party leaders or heads of governments” (True et al. 2014, 11). South Korea has not been spared from this rationale of gender quotas in the electoral system. In 1995, to lower women’s entry barriers to run for elections as well as increase women’s parliamentary representation, Korean government adopted the obligatory quota system for female candidates in proportional representation (PR) (i.e., for female nomination for seats in the legislative elections) (Soh 2011). Under the 2002 amendment to the Political Party Act, 50% of nominations are to be reserved for female candidates running for local constituency seats and 30% of nominations for those running for national constituency seats (in the National Assembly), respectively (Lee and Lee 2013, 48). As a result, the political party-registered PR election system was carried out, starting with the 2004 general election (Suh et al. 2011). Later, under the 2010 amendment to the Election Act for Public Offices, a compulsory legal quota in the candidate selection process of local councils’ constituencies was first introduced, so that more than one female candidate per general constituency can be nominated by each political party (Soh 2011, 100). Indeed, such institutional and legal changes have played a critical role in motivating political parties to nominate female partisan elites to attract young female voters (Hermanns 2006; Kim 2013). On the other hand, this has enabled women to be given more political opportunities to run for legislative seats, thereby leading to an increase in the number of female lawmakers in national and local legislatures (Hermanns 2006; Kim 2008; Suh et al. 2011).

Third, government-led (public) organizations and citizen-led (civil society) organizations, especially nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) supporting gender equality and feminist ideology, have influenced the likelihood of achieving higher levels of women’s representativeness in the public sector (Hermanns 2006; Kim 2013). In terms of public organizations, for instance, the Korean government established the Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI) in 1983, the Presidential Commission on Women’s Affairs in 1998, and the Ministry of Gender Equality in 2001 (renamed as the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2005). These organizations have allocated gender-oriented policy budget and implemented the related action plans, such as a rule to prevent one particular gender from exceeding 60% in the membership of a government committee, a plan for the expansion of women’s participation to achieve the 40% target in government committees, training and education programs to support for reemployment of career-interrupted women (Article 13 of the Act on Promotion of Economic Activities of Career-Interrupted Women), and family-friendly policies in the workplace (e.g., expansion of maternity and parental leave, flexible working hours, workplace childcare centers).

With respect to NGOs, for example, there exist the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Center for Korean Women and Politics, the Korean Institute for Women and Politics, and the Korean League of Women Voters (Kim 2013; Lee and Chin 2007; Lee and Lee 2013). According to Lee and Lee (2013, 46), in the early 2000s, more than 3500 women-related organizations have been created to support or push for government policies in promoting improved gender balance in the social context and women’s political access, which was a striking change within civil society, having risen from 2000 organizations in 1989, and only 23 in the 1960s. Such organizations have directly and indirectly contributed to institutional and legal changes by the Korean government. As a few representative cases, the Gender Equality Employment Act in 1987 (modified to the Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation in 2007), the Act on Women’s Development in 1995, and the Gender Discrimination Prevention and Relief Act in 1999 were enacted (Kim 2008; Lee and Lee 2013). Furthermore, in line with the efforts toward better employment environments and outcomes for women, since 2003, public institutions and universities have started hiring female applicants with a target quota of 30% employment.

Trends and Features of Women’s Representativeness in Government and Politics

Women in the Civil Service

In response to the improved social and political status of Korean women, the number of female public officials and lawmakers has been gradually growing. As Fig. 1 shows, in the late 1990s, women comprised approximately 20% of all public employees working at local autonomous entities, but since the mid-2010s, women made up more than 35% of them. The governance structure of Korean local autonomous entities generally includes a total of 16 prefectures, including the Seoul special metropolitan city, 6 metropolitan cities (Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Gwangju, Daejeon, and Ulsan), 8 provinces (Gangwon, Kyonggi, Chungbuk, Chungnam, Gyeongbuk, Gyeongnam, Jeonbuk, and Jeonnam), and the Jeju special province. In such a broader array of local governments, this increase is expected to continue.
Fig. 1

Female public employees in local autonomous entities. (Source: Statistics Korea (n.d.))

In addition, in terms of the proportion of women public servants at level 5 and above, there has been quite a notable change. In the Korean civil service system, the open recruitment exams can be classified into three types: level 5, level 7, and level 9. For the ranking or employment grade, level 5 ranks higher than the latter two. Aside from them, high-ranking public officials over level 4 are considered senior (executive-level) civil servants. As Fig. 2 shows, over the past decade, from 2001 to 2014, the percentage of female employees in central and local governments has increased, from 3.6% to approximately 15% and 5.3% to approximately 12%, respectively. It is notable that until the early 2000s, a relatively much smaller portion of high-ranked female employees has tended to work in central government than in local government, but since 2005, the proportion of women who place in higher positions in central government has exceeded that of local government.
Fig. 2

Female public employees at level 5 and above. (Source: Statistics Korea (n.d.))

Women in Politics

In history, political suffrage was granted to women in South Korea on July 17, 1948, after the first Presidential election on May 10 in the same year. Since then, Korean men and women have both been legally entitled to vote and participate in national elections (e.g., Presidential election and National Assembly election) as well as local ones. As a result, a few pioneering female politicians (i.e., Yim Yong-sin, Pak Sun-chon, and Pak Hyon-suk) were able to work in the first government of South Korea and the National Assembly in the late 1940s and 1950s. However, most of them were not elected leaders, but instead as political appointees (Park 1999, 433). It should not be surprising that compared to their male counterparts, very few female candidates had been nominated nor popularly supported in the previous Korean cabinet and electoral system.

Since the 1970s, however, in increasing voters’ support for female candidates running for the legislative elections, the ratio of female political leaders has considerably grown over time. As Table 1 shows, the proportion of female legislators (lawmakers) in the National Assembly increased steadily, from 0.5% in the 1st National Assembly to 5.9% in the 16th elections. Subsequently, the number of women serving in cabinet positions rose dramatically, comprising 17% out of the total of 300 members in 2016. Likewise, the number of female lawmakers elected directly has increased since the 2000s (see parentheses in Table 1). Since the 16th general election, due to the quota system for women, each political party has nominated female candidates more often than before (Hermanns 2006; Kim 2008). Consequently, there have been 194 female politicians in total between 2000 and 2016, which is two times more than the number (a total of 77 women lawmakers) between 1948 and 1996.
Table 1

Statistics of the National Assembly elections


Total seats

Number of females

% of females

1st (Constitutional Assembly, 1948)


1 (1)


2nd (1950)


2 (2)


3rd (1954)


1 (1)


4th (1958)


3 (3)


5th (1960)


1 (1)


6th (1963)


2 (1)


7th (1967)


3 (1)


8th (1971)


5 (0)


9th (1973)


11 (2)


10th (1979)


8 (1)


11th (1981)


9 (1)


12th (1985)


8 (2)


13th (1988)


6 (0)


14th (1992)


8 (1)


15th (1996)


9 (3)


16th (2000)


16 (5)


17th (2004)


39 (10)


18th (2008)


41 (14)


19th (2012)


47 (19)


20th (2016)


51 (26)


Note: Numbers in parentheses are elected legislators (lawmakers) from electoral districts (proportional representatives were excluded)

Source: National Election Commission, Republic of Korea, Election Statistics (National Assembly) & Kim (2008), Table 6.3: Rate of Females elected in previous elections

In line with this surge of female elites in the national elections, the results of local elections also coincide with women’s increased political participation. Figure 3 shows the proportion of female metropolitan and municipal-level government heads and legislative members historically elected in local-level elections. It was observed that the percentage of female candidates elected has increased at all levels of government. Notably, female members occupying municipal-level district council seats increased from 1.59% in 1995 to 20.7% of the total members in 2018, which is a huge change across the three different types of local elections.
Fig. 3

Rate of women elected in local elections (%). (Source: National Election Commission, Republic of Korea (n.d.))


Despite women’s increased social and political empowerment within the historical context, a male-dominated culture, stemming from a patriarchal tradition, still somewhat remains in the current Korean governance system. Until recently, compared with other Asian countries, only a marginal number of Korean women had access to leadership roles in the public sector. Possibly, one of the challenges faced by female public officials and lawmakers might be perceived glass ceiling, especially at the upper levels of government organizations and legislative bodies, not to mention discrimination in pay and promotion. Therefore, there is a continuous need to push for a change in women’s underrepresentation in government and politics. The government should make more visible efforts toward gender equality in the public sector. It is critical to not only design various women-friendly institutions and policies that help enhance women’s participation in the civil service and political sphere but also to motivate political parties to engage more talented women, beginning with the candidate selection process of national and local elections through continued support in their electoral success.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, School of Social SciencesNanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore